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Reasonable Accommodations: Emotional Support Animals

Reasonable Accommodations: Emotional Support Animals

As an animal lover, I take extra notice when I see a dog in a public place, like a restaurant or a grocery store. Usually, the dogs are wearing a vest, a special bandana, or a slightly different leash to point out that they are service animals and to not bother them because they are working. “Working” for these dogs means they are offering some type of service to their owner. The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, defines service animals as “dogs who are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” Examples of such work include pulling a wheelchair, guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, among others.

However, dogs and other animals that only offer emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA and may not be allowed in public places like service dogs. Nonetheless, they are considered a reasonable accommodation that housing providers have to make for a person with an emotional disability. An emotional disability would be considered disorders that affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Common examples are depression and anxiety disorders.

Federal law generally requires landlords to make an exception to their “no pet” policy so that a tenant with a disability can fully use and enjoy his or her dwelling. The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the ADA protect the right of people with disabilities to keep service animals and emotional support animals, even when a landlord’s policy explicitly prohibits pets. Emotional support and service animals are not “pets” but rather are considered to be more like assistive aids such as wheelchairs. In most housing complexes, so long as the tenant has a qualified disability or condition and a letter or prescription from an appropriate professional, such as a therapist or physician, he or she is entitled to a reasonable accommodation that would allow an emotional support animal in the apartment.

Conditions and restrictions generally cannot be applied to emotional support animals. Conditions and restrictions would be like asking to get a cat declawed or not allowing a certain breed of dog. The right to have an emotional support animal is broad but not unlimited. If the animal causes damage or is aggressive, a landlord can deny it. Yet, each animal must have an individualized assessment that relies on unbiased evidence about the animal’s actual conduct. An animal cannot be denied based on an assumption or fear about the types of harm or damage an animal may cause, and also, not on evidence about harm or damage that other animals have caused.

Once an accommodation has been requested a landlord can request the person to certify, in writing, (1) that the tenant or a member of his or her family is a person with a disability; (2) the need for the animal to assist the person with that specific disability; and (3) that the animal actually assists the person with a disability. A landlord cannot ask about your disability on a rental application as they must treat all potential or current tenants the same. They can however ask whether the applicant qualifies for a rental unit available only to people with a disability.

By Morgan Lynch, Legal Intern

For additional questions and materials, please contact Disability Rights West Virginia.